Retail Milestones - Staying True to Its Roots
Strategy helps California retailer deal with business and economic changes
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 9/15/2011 4:18:40 AM
THE PAST FEW YEARS HAVE BEEN DIFFICULT for casual living retailers everywhere. But for the mother-daughter team running Anaheim Patio & Fireside in Southern California, things have been particularly tough.
The patriarch and founder Kurt Lorig passed away last October, leaving his wife, Phyllis, to take over as president, and their daughter, Bonnie Richins, to assume even more responsibility over the Anaheim Patio stores in Brea, Huntington Beach and Irvine. Meanwhile, California's economic meltdown and unusually cool and damp weather have conspired to slow down business.
Anaheim Patio appears to be at a crossroads. Lorig and Richins insist it isn't. In their minds, surviving the tough times is a matter of staying true to the vision Kurt had from the very beginning.
GROWING UP IN CALIFORNIA
The first Anaheim Patio location opened in 1956. The idea came after Phyllis' brother got Kurt a part-time job at a local furniture store that also sold a few pieces of patio furniture. Outdoor furniture was not a big or sophisticated segment of the market back then, but the Lorigs saw it as an opportunity and seized it.
Their timing couldn't have been better. The Disneyland theme park had opened a year earlier, and a housing boom soon followed. Kurt saw what was coming - an enormous market of new homeowners looking for furniture to put on their patios.
"To get the store ready, we pulled weeds and painted the building," Phyllis recalled. "We put a chain-link fence around the property, and every day we would just pull out as much furniture as we could."
People flocked to the store for furniture. Lorig added hearth and barbecues to the mix, and people flocked to the store for that, too. The community - and Richins - grew up with Anaheim Patio & Fireside.
"I started cleaning tables, sweeping floors and answering calls when I was 12," Richins said. "I went to college, thought about teaching and tried my hand at a few other things. But when Dad offered me a job just to have some income, it just so happened that I stayed and became more and more involved with buying."
The Lorigs opened a second location in Huntington Beach in 1973, and a third store in Brea in 1990. Anaheim also has its 18,000-sq.-ft . warehouse and headquarters in Brea, but opening a store there proved difficult at first.
"That was a pretty rough time," Richins said. "We had made the commitment to open the Brea store right when the economy bottomed out."
A few years later, the Lorig family got some bad news about their original place in Anaheim. To expand Interstate 5, the state of California claimed imminent domain over the property.
"The store was right where an off-ramp was supposed to go," Richins said.
That store closed in 1996. Still, sales at the other locations kept going strong, thanks largely to the retailer's growing reputation for value, quality and service. Meanwhile, the California economy hummed along registering barely a blip during recessionary periods. Then came the latest one.
"We had some bad times in the '80s and '90s, but things were never as severe then," Phyllis said. "Things got bad a lot faster this time."
"The last recession hit us hard," Richins added. "We're three years out and still recovering. We're still not out of the woods."
THE VALUE OF LONGEVITY
Luckily, Kurt Lorig made quality, value and service the key tenets of the business from the start. He never wavered. Even in good times, when strong consumer spending compelled many retailers to move to more high-end furniture and boost price points, Lorig stuck to a motto he coined when he opened his first store.
"His motto was, ‘Prices born here, raised elsewhere,'" Richins said. "He wanted to be able to cater to a lot of people. We have always carried good sets but we've also always had value groups."
His motto cultivated a strong reputation among consumers for quality and value, which came in handy when their discretionary income dried up. Richins said the pressure to find product that fits what consumers want is even greater now that their buying habits have shift ed.
"In the past, they were buying $10,000 - $20,000 worth of furniture," she said of her clientele. "Now they're spending $5,000 or less, then adding on later."
That trend is beginning to shift back to the way it was, Richins said, but she doubts retailers will ever again experience the free-wheeling days of 2005 - 2007, when both businesses and consumers went overboard with credit to keep spending. That said, she noted consumers still see value in adding to their homes. "And in our climate, the outdoors is really an important part of everyday life," she said.
Few names have as much caché in outdoor furniture retail than Anaheim. It has been around long enough now that second and third generations are buying furniture sets there.
With economic recovery slowly under way, could Richins and Lorig consider leveraging their staying power to expand the business?
"It's always in the back of our minds," Richins said. "But it's getting easier and easier to manage three stores. I think we're at a point where we're happy with what we have."
Maybe expansion will be a decision her son, Gregg, will make one day. He is currently managing the Brea store, where he also handles special ordering.
"It's very gratifying to see him take to it like a duck to a pond," Phyllis said. "You don't see too many 25-year-olds come in and have a good head for business like he has."
She should know, because that sharp business sense runs in the family. Phyllis has it, Richins has it and now Gregg is showing he does, too. And that's something Anaheim Patio will always have, no matter what changes may come down the road.